BottleRock Napa Valley
Saturday, May 31, 2014
Napa Valley Expo
Better Worse than: Any other experience I've had exiting a large concert or a festival, including those where you board buses to leave.
First came the high of Saturday at BottleRock Napa Valley: For 90 minutes, the Atlanta hip-hop duo OutKast toured an elated crowd through hits from its long career, playing songs like "B.O.B.," "Gasoline," "GhettoMusick," and, of course, "Hey Ya." It was the duo's only Northern California stop so far on this year's much-anticipated reunion tour, and it was fantastic -- even if OutKast didn't fill up the two-hour time slot it was allotted.
Then came the low: As the main stage cleared out from the headliners' set, the throngs of people added to a river of humanity running through the main lane of the festival grounds. Ostensibly, this wall of people formed a line to board buses to get to the parking lots, which were four miles away on the southern edge of town. But the situation was utterly unorganized. There were no helpful signs. No one seemed to know what they were doing. And as more and more surveyed what looked like a hopeless, serpentine queue -- and as the highs from the music and the beer and the wine wore off -- the mood turned dark, and the crowd turned nasty.
It took my party nearly three hours to get from the BottleRock festival grounds in Napa to the parking lot and then, in our car, out to the main highway. We got in line to leave the festival at 9:50 p.m., and we exited the lot at 12:43 a.m. By the time we did, the thrill of finally seeing OutKast, and of seeing everyone else finally see OutKast, had long worn off.
The earlier part of the day was spent amid long lines, too. Midafternoon at the festival of the '90s bands brought a crucial decision: whether to brave the clogged main stage for Third Eye Blind, or remain in the shaded lawn area for Smash Mouth. I chose the former, and found Stephan Jenkins and Co. still vamping like twentysomethings in the bright Napa sun, though the frontman is pushing 50. He said the band members had been in the studio in San Francisco the day before, recording a new album. There was not a lot of anticipatory yelling or applause for the idea of a new Third Eye Blind album. The band got "Semi-Charmed Life" out about two-thirds of the way through the set, and announced its intention to play some newer stuff. This caused an exodus to the bathrooms and beer tents. At one point, Jenkins, who has a degree in English from U.C. Berkeley, introduced a song by saying, "I like this song because I think this song sounds really good."
Back in the shade, Smash Mouth had drawn an outsized crowd with loud, semi-silly hit-parading -- exactly what most people want from a nostalgia act at a big festival. The whole day, not just Smash Mouth's set but especially Smash Mouth's set, had a strong county-fair vibe, due to the heavy presence of county fair-type acts and the fact that we were at an actual fairgrounds. It felt like the Lexus of county fairs. Or the Napa Cab of county fairs. Anyway, Smash Mouth played "I'm a Believer" and "All Star," and covered "You Really Got Me," and did it all with a fury it's easy to forget the band ever had.
Then there was Weezer on the main stage. For band that spans two distinct eras -- the Blue Album and Pinkerton Era, and the Era of Naming an Album After a Clothing Company and/or a Character on a Popular TV Drama -- its set sounded remarkably contiguous. "Beverly Hills," a career nadir, wasn't as annoying as it should have been. "Pork and Beans" sounded like an updated "In the Garage," maybe 'cause it came after the immortal "Say It Ain't So." We even got "Surf Wax America," a stroke of summer-song genius and an unexpected deep cut off the debut album. The band closed with "Buddy Holly," serving a rush of pop glee to for the onset of a warm evening in Napa. The crowd did not want it to leave.
Outkast has been playing mostly the same exact set at its festival appearances this year, and this is what we got on Saturday in Napa. The predictability, at least for those of us who look up set lists in advance, took away nothing: OutKast was superb. It would have been hard for Andre 3000 and Big Boi to not own the night, given their long absence and catalog of great songs, but still -- they were fantastic. The gathered crowd on Saturday seemed largely of the generation that surreptitiously freaked to "B.O.B." and "So Fresh, So Clean" inside high school (and maybe even middle school) gymnasia, so the reception to its 90-minute set was kinetic, unquestioning. Dance circles were breaking out in the crowd near me. Everyone seemed to be moving.
There were a few surprises: Andre 3000 gave a nice little speech professing love for the Bay Area, and noted that our very own KMEL was the first radio station to play an OutKast record. He remarked at length about how long the group's career has been, and yet he's only 39. The duo each performed a mini-set of solo songs, with Big Boi offering up "The Way You Move" and "GhettoMusick," and Andre coming out for "She Lives in My Lap" and "Hey Ya" -- an undisputed new millennium classic that was the high point of the entire day at BottleRock. (Though the Andre song "Roses," which they performed together, also proved one of the strongest songs of the night.) The closing sequence -- "So Fresh, So Clean," their version of UGK's "International Players Anthem," and the elegiac "The Whole World" -- capped the set marvelously, even if it ended too early. And then we were all left to face the lines getting out of BottleRock, and to wonder, for nearly three hours, whether the day had been worth it.
By the way: I've never heard anyone rap as well in person as Andre 3000 rapped onstage at BottleRock on Saturday. There were certainly backing tracks, but the fluidity and speed of his rhymes was incredible.
On logistics: They matter a lot at a festival, and BottleRock hasn't figured them out yet. I wouldn't recommend the event to anyone as it is, unless organizers raise Jimi Hendrix from the dead and book him to play. But its problems could be fairly easily fixed. For one thing, there should be big signs (or at least polite, informed staff) telling people where to go after the music ends. There should be an organized line for buses, so people can wait confidently and calmly, instead of wondering whether they're in the wrong place. Secondly, having the entire crowd park in a dystopian dirt lot down at the end of a two-lane road is woefully, insanely inefficient. Waiting in line for a bus to leave would be one thing, but to have wait for another hour to get out of the parking lot is simply unacceptable. (The bus loading and service itself was, I should note, fine.) So if BottleRock can fix the lines and find more accessible parking, it would be a viable event. Right now it isn't.